[September 12, 2021] In January 1999, U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet took command of the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe (SSN-763). At the time, the sub was known throughout the Navy as its worst performing vessel and yet had been listed for a deployment later that year. The story of Captain Marquet’s success was, at its core, turning followers into leaders and aggressively pursuing excellence.
It’s a compelling story about how Captain Marquet took a Navy sub and turned around the performance of its crew. When he took command he noted that the crew was in a self-reinforcing downward spiral where poor practices resulted in mistakes. These mistakes feed on each other and degraded morale which only resulted in the crew having less initiative and only doing the minimum to get by.
Who hasn’t seen this in an organization? The question is, “What do real leaders do about it?” His focus was to change the daily motivation from avoiding errors to achieving excellence. This meant that short-term rewards were sacrificed for longer-term goals. Senior leaders like Marquet know that to achieve excellence means more than just avoiding errors.
Organizations heavily influenced by bureaucracy, however, will always struggle because the leaders can never get beyond short-term goals and a focus on eliminating errors. Reducing mistakes is a byproduct of pursuing excellence not the other way around.1 The best way to do this is by giving more authority to people in the organization. This is where better information on the problems reside anyway.
Many senior leaders are reluctant to do this. Too many have been caught in the trap of their own personality of importance. That is why only the best leaders can effectively push down authority; failure is the most likely outcome for those who cannot make this happen. Yet with authority comes responsibility, accountability, and hard work. And these are the seeds of the most successful organizations.
Senior leaders are successful at pursuing excellence. They do this in many ways but the most important is to recognize that they must rely on others, avoid micromanagement, and look to the long-term goals.
- See Simon Sinek’s 2009 book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Also see my recommendation here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/reading-list-update-38/